My favorite living filmmaker is probably David Lynch, a creator of strange cinematic dreamscapes where the players and the rules of the universe are every bit as twisted as the visuals he puts on the screen. You know you’ve really made it as a filmmaker when your surname has become an adjective, so it’s hard to refrain from putting the “Lynchian” label on Darrell Roodt’s 1993 film, TO THE DEATH. It has a few of the trademarks — a woman in peril, fractured identities, criminal elements, and strange visuals — though not with the same intensity, frequency, or intent. However, when you train a critical eye on a string of films from a formulaic subgenre during a very specific period of time, viewing them can be tedious, and films sometimes run together. Deviations from the norm, however slight, always stick out and beg for a closer look.
TO THE DEATH is not exactly unconventional in its narrative, and it’s regarded in some circles as an unofficial sequel to the very conventional AMERICAN KICKBOXER 1. Most of the main characters — and some of the cast — make return appearances, with slight changes. John Barrett, who played elder kickboxing champion BJ Quinn in the first installment, goes by the name of Rick Quinn here. His girlfriend from the prior story arc, Carol, is now his wife. Denard, previously a flamboyant French kickboxer played by South African Brad Morris, has transformed into an angry French kickboxer played by Morrocan-Belgian Michel Qissi. Rabble-rousing journalist Willard (Ted Le Plat) returns to the fray as a cohesive thread to the first film, but then confounds the audience with longer hair and a mustache. It’s like the alternate 1985 from BACK TO THE FUTURE II where everyone is a slightly different version of themselves, but this is somehow more scientifically dubious!
We pick up just following the events of AMERICAN KICKBOXER 1, where Quinn defeated Denard and recaptured the championship. He then chooses to retire, confusing the kickboxing world, vacating the title, and infuriating his rival, Denard, who wants nothing more than to beat Quinn in a rematch and regain his pride.
Not one to live out his retirement days as a total recluse, Quinn takes a social engagement over lunch with the Le Braque brothers, Dominique (Robert Whitehead) and Roger (Greg Latter). As burgeoning fight promoters, they would like nothing more than to coax Denard out of retirement to join a more exclusive sphere of the fight universe, where fighters perform in front of the elite and fabulously wealthy. Dominique’s proposal of $50K for “one evening, maybe two hours” seems, on the surface. Uh…. what kind of movie is this again? The rich jerk doubles the take when Quinn rebuffs, and responds in an ominous tone when Quinn is like, “shove your $100K offer up your asses, but thanks again for the poorly plated steak salad that I didn’t touch” and he leaves in a huff.
The next day, kickboxing journalist and old friend Willard stops by to say goodbye to the retired Quinn. While they’re exchanging pleasantries, Carol starts up the ol’ sportscar for a Sunday drive and it explodes like a jungle hut in a Filipino commando movie. Who would rig Quinn’s car, and why? (Don’t answer, that was purely rhetorical).
Some months later, Quinn has downgraded from a beautiful home in the country with his wife, to a poorly-lit hotel room with no furniture. His alcoholic tendencies from the prior film story arc have returned, and he becomes so out of control during a drink with Willard that the bouncers literally throw him out with the trash. Later on, he drunkenly starts a fight with Denard — the man he blames for Carol’s death — and ends up in jail. Who bails him out? Willard? Ha! Journalists don’t make any money. In fact, it’s Dominique Le Braque’s own wife, Angelica (Michelle Bestbier), who pays up to spring Quinn. He doesn’t like having any debts, so he agrees to a meeting with Dominique to arrange a payment plan that involves fighting over the course of five years with a very reasonable interest rate. I wish I’d had the same option to pay back my student loans.
The rules are strict: Quinn has only about a week to get back into shape before his first fight. Under no circumstances is he to get friendly with Dominique’s wife, even though her gestures are signs of a woman desperate to escape her abusive relationship. Dominique tries to communicate this caveat through a joke about frying Rick’s balls and broiling his dick, but he totally fucks up the line delivery. Instead of striking fear into those around him about the various cooking techniques that might be used to prepare their genitals as a meal, everyone just stands around awkwardly.
It’s rare that I can really enjoy one of these movies if the action isn’t: a) well-done; or b) frequent. There’s dramatic conflict and some bizarre subtext, but not a whole lot of actual fighting here. When it does occur, it’s standard kickboxing movie fight fare but nothing outstanding. But they do have a significant creative flourish. In a normal kickboxing sports movie, the referee is something of a compulsory element to maintain the illusion of rule-keeping and real-world accuracy. In an underground fight-to-the-death movie, it’s extraneous — you don’t need someone to enforce rules when the fighters are trying to kill each other. Where this film differs, is in showing off “Door #3” — the referee as executioner. Once each fight has been decided — usually by knockout — Dominique throws a red rose into the ring, the referee aims a pistol at the downed fighter’s head and fires away. It’s a funereal symbol and cruel power move all in one tidy package. (Shooting fighters who are trying to kill each other runs contrary to the spirit of a “death match” but I digress). It hammers home Dominique’s god complex along with his love of simple but classic floral arrangements.
Few would deny that Michel Qissi created a memorable and fearsome action villain with KICKBOXER’s Tong Po. That said, replacing Brad Morris from AKB1 as the character of Denard is no easy assignment. Morris’s performance captured all the arrogance, flamboyance, and intensity you could want in a chopsocky villain. Qissi’s take on Denard is angry and intense, but it lacks the flourish of the original performance. Much of the blame here belongs to the screenwriters for the way they wrote the character, but there was also an opportunity here for Qissi to make the role his own. Aside from one scene in which he brandishes a pitchfork, a la Ginny Field in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, there was nothing especially memorable about Denard in this film.
Perhaps that’s why this movie doesn’t stick out for most people. The things that were memorable about AMERICAN KICKBOXER 1 — the training sequences, the performances from Morris and Barrett, and a great fighting villain — were integral pieces to the whole movie. The memorable things in TO THE DEATH — smoking clowns, unpredictable quips, weird relationship dynamics, alcoholic benders, and murderous sleaze — are unique choices but seemingly random parts. When you look at all of these low-budget DTV kick-punching films as a whole, it’s rare that the critical components in an individual film — characters, story, and action — are done exceptionally well. So, maybe, in a vacuum, more minor flourishes in a film like this take on added weight.
Such weird choices snowballed over the runtime and culminated in a fairly enjoyable viewing experience. There were so many, in fact, that I somehow managed to ignore the absence of what usually makes these films enjoyable: great fights (or terrible fights) and lots of technical mishaps. And after an abbreviated acting career in which he had only a few starring roles but delivered solid dramatic performances relative to his peers in the genre, I’m comfortable labeling John Barrett as the “John Cazale of American Martial Arts B-Movies.” Sometimes we need labels to find the good stuff.
—This content originally appeared on Fist of B-List